LOS ANGELES — Malik Golden remembers the 2009 Rose Bowl very well, but Penn State fans should be happy that his thoughts from that day didn’t stick with him.
Golden was a big Southern Cal fan as a kid growing up in the Northeast. Like many kids in the mid-2000s, he was drawn to the Trojans by their dizzying array of skilled players led by Reggie Bush.
He watched USC defeat Penn State, 38-24, to end the 2008 season — the last time the Nittany Lions reached the Rose Bowl. His takeaways from the Nittany Lions that day weren’t … great.
“After the game, I said I would never come to Penn State,” Golden said Friday at Rose Bowl Media Day. “I promised myself. Now looking back on it, that I’m here, it is kind of surreal.
“(USC safety) Taylor Mays made a crazy hit on somebody. I don’t remember who the receiver was (Jordan Norwood). They had Mark Sanchez at quarterback, Joe McKnight at running back. I was a big USC fan growing up.”
Golden did not stay true to his word. He eventually committed to Penn State, then took a step back to consider his options when the news of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal broke before reaffirming his pledge.
Not only did Golden stick with the Nittany Lions when he had several opportunities to leave without penalty because of NCAA sanctions, he became a respected leader of a Big Ten champion.
“I realized growing up in Connecticut that I was never going to go to school 3,000 miles away,” Golden said. “USC was kind of out of the picture. Penn State offered, and when I realized all of the things Penn State had to offer, it was kind of a no-brainer.”
For Penn State players who grew up in Central Pennsylvania as a Nittany Lions fan, that day conjures different memories. The Nittany Lions finished the 2008 season as co-Big Ten champs for the second time in four seasons but went to Pasadena that season after a trip to the Orange Bowl to end the 2005 campaign.
Southern Cal built a 31-7 halftime lead. Penn State lost all-time leading rusher Evan Royster to injury late in the first half. It was not the coronation the Nittany Lions were looking for.
“Yeah, I watched that game. It didn’t go too well for them, but it was still awesome to watch,” junior LB Brandon Smith said. “The Rose Bowl parade, the game, it is the granddaddy of them with a lot of history. It is humbling to be here and to help Penn State get back here. Hopefully we can do a little better than they did.”
Andrew Nelson grew up in a Penn State household in Hershey, Pa. Saturdays were always spent watching the Nittany Lions, for at least part of the time anyway.
“Back then I had so much energy I couldn’t sit down and watch an entire game,” Nelson said. “I grew up a Penn State fan and watched a lot of games. My dad watched like every game Penn State has ever played. I can guarantee it was on, and I probably watched some of it.”
The 2009 Rose Bowl is not the USC game that many Penn State players remember best from their childhood. A titanic showdown three years earlier featuring Bush, Matt Leinart and the Trojans against Vince Young and Texas in the national championship game is the one that resonates.
Golden isn’t the only player on this Penn State team who grew up enjoying the electrifying work from Bush.
“The thing I remember the most would be the USC and the Texas game,” sophomore RB Saquon Barkley said. “Reggie Bush and those guys go at it and Vince Young leading that drive to win the game and scoring that touchdown. It just makes you understand how special this game is. Once this game started, once we were announced that we were playing for the bowl game, I just could not stop watching Reggie Bush highlights.
“Reggie Bush is one of the greatest running backs to ever play in college football. The fact that I’m going to be able to play at the same stage that he played on, it’s just so special and means a lot to you as a running back and as a player.”
A couple of players have family connections to USC, as well. Cornerback Grant Haley’s brother will be on the opposing sideline. He is a USC student and a manager on the football team.
Linebacker Jason Cabinda’s family might have split rooting interests as well. His older sister, Linda, went to Southern Cal.
“I grew up a USC fan in general,” Cabinda said. “I mean, (USC is) a team I’ve always remembered to be a dominant team, the best of the best of college football. So to be going against a team like that and be put up in that same tier is awesome. It’s going to be a great opportunity for me, and kind of interesting, kind of reflecting back, knowing that the team I once rooted for I’ll now be playing against.
“I would have never thought that one day I’d be playing against USC, a team I once rooted for growing up. So it’s interesting.”